Duncan Fallowell

Russian escapism: Telluria, by Vladimir Sorokin, reviewed

As nations collapse into warfare, the only chance of happiness lies in a psychedelic drug, administered by a nail to the back of the skull

Vladimir Sorokin. [Getty Images]

Vladimir Sorokin, old enough to have been banned in the Soviet Union, flourished in the post-Gorbachev spring, and he fled to Berlin several days before Russia attacked Ukraine. He writes phantasmagorias, as so many Russians do, because Russia is a nation that has never allowed its writers to examine society directly. Solzhenitsyn said: ‘Russian literature gives a poor notion of Russia, because after 1917 all truth was suppressed.’ But even in the so-called Golden Age, the Tsar’s censorship was brutal. Voinovich said: ‘Depicting reality as it is, it’s very alien to Russians.’ Gogol provided one way out – satire – but he escaped to Rome. Later writers escaped into the historic past, romantic passivity, surrealism. I think Anna Karenina is Russia’s only realist novel contemporary with the society it was published in.

It is necessary to remind ourselves of these fundamentals in order to understand why reading Telluria is such a dismal experience, and why that is the most important thing about it. It was published in Russia in 2013, by which time Sorokin and all other intelligent people were aware that, after the unprecedented freedoms of the 1990s, the dark vortex was spinning inside Russia once again, a society not only remurdering itself but also unhinged from the very idea that published language can have a relationship to actuality.

The only chance of happiness is to take a psychedelic drug via a nail in the back of the skull

So Telluria is about escapism, 50 episodes looking at a future in which nations have collapsed into Tolkienesque warfare, with sci-fi trimmings, in which the only chance for happiness is to take the psychedelic drug ‘tellurium’ via a nail in the back of the skull. The blurb says this dystopia covers ‘the world’, but that is not true. Sorokin’s fantasy dossier excludes, despite a few references, the Anglosphere and Latin America and Africa.

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